Climate change denial isn't about science, or even skepticism | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation
Photo: Climate change denial isn't about science, or even skepticism

Why do so many people insist that we remain stuck with outdated and destructive systems and technologies? (Credit: DarkElfPhoto via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

Let's suppose the world's legitimate scientific institutions and academies, climate scientists, and most of the world's governments are wrong.

Maybe, as some people have argued, they're involved in a massive conspiracy to impose a socialist world order. Maybe the money's just too damn good. It doesn't matter. Let's just imagine they're wrong, and that the polar ice caps aren't melting and the climate isn't changing. Or, if you prefer, that it's happening, but that it's a natural occurrence — nothing to do with seven billion people spewing carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

Would it still make sense to continue rapidly burning the world's diminishing supply of fossil fuels? Does it mean we shouldn't worry about pollution?

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We could pretend global warming isn't happening, or that humans aren't a factor if it is. That would be crazy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but even if it weren't, there would still be no reason to continue down the road we're on. Energy is at the heart of modern society's needs, but when the source is finite, it seems folly to be hell-bent on using it up in a few generations, leaving the problems of depletion and pollution to our children and grandchildren. The longer we delay implementing solutions to our energy challenges the more costly and difficult it will be when we have to face the inevitable.

So, why do so many people insist that we remain stuck with outdated and destructive systems and technologies? Why do so many try to throw roadblocks in the way of progress and solutions? And what can we do about it?

Many books and studies have addressed the first two questions, including Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and Climate Cover-Up, by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore. Those show that huge sums of corporate money have been spent on campaigns to sow doubt and confusion about issues ranging from the dangers of smoking to threats to the ozone layer to climate change. It's all about protecting corporate profits and interests. That doesn't explain why so many ordinary people buy the industry spin, but a number of theories have attempted to shed light on that phenomenon.

What's important, though, is for those of us who rely on facts rather than spin to look at solutions. We can all do much more to reduce our environmental footprints, but the problem has grown so much that large-scale efforts are needed, and many of these must come from decision-makers in industry, government, and academia. However, there appears to be reluctance in some of those circles to act unless the public demands it. And so it's up to all of us to become informed. Then we can hold our leaders to account and challenge those who refuse to see the big picture.

This public responsibility is especially important in light of stepped-up efforts to deny the reality of climate change or the role humans play in it. Cases in point are illustrated by the denialgate scandal revealed by the release of Heartland Institute documents and the revelation that Ottawa's Carleton University hired Tom Harris, a PR man for a number of astroturf groups with a mechanical engineering background, to teach a course on climate change.

There are many credible sources of information, and they aren't blog sites run by weathermen like Anthony Watts or industry-funded fake science organizations. One place to start is at skepticalscience.com. Click on the tab that says "Arguments" for scientific responses to all the main climate change denier talking points.

Another great rebuttal to the deniers came in a recent article in the New York Review of Books by Yale University economics professor William D. Nordhaus. He said his article, "Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong", was "primarily designed to correct their misleading description of my own research; but it also is directed more broadly at their attempt to discredit scientists and scientific research on climate change."

The misrepresentation of Nordhaus's research is typical of the Orwellian doublespeak deniers employ, but scientists and researchers are calling them on it.

Armed with credible information, we can challenge those who misrepresent science and spread confusion. If nothing else, we'll be able to breathe easier!

March 8, 2012
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2012/03/climate-change-denial-isnt-about-science-or-even-skepticism/

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13 Comments

May 13, 2012
2:08 AM

You queried if would still make sense to continue rapidly burning the world's diminishing supply of fossil fuels?

This assumes that they are really are finite at current levels but future resources are not limited to current finds, advancing technology makes it possible us to use new resources that were not usable. For example shale gas — and now shale oil. such as the recent River Formation find of 3 trillion barrels of oil under Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Not all will be recoverable but 3 trillion barrels is about twice the worlds oil reserves.

Another example would be the North Sea gas, now declining. Should Ms Thatcher have vetoed it's use decades ago? How ridiculous that would look now that there new recoverable reserves found in the north of England potentially 100-200 years worth.

To not use it for ideological/environmental reasons is one thng , but to argue that just because we are not aware of methodology or resource now, that future generations will not know either is just plain daft.

Mar 24, 2012
4:57 PM

It’s good to see Tom Harris applying the same level of research to philosophy as he does to climate science, in this case grabbing some terms from Wikipedia and tossing them around with abandon and little concern for their meaning. Maybe that's an ad hominem attack, but then I'd suggest that Harris's entire last post is a red herring.

It's not ad hominem to point out that he denies the existence of human-caused climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. And it's not guilt by association to point out who employs him to do so. The rest is just typical of the Gish Gallop (look that one up in your Wikipedia, Tom!) that Harris and other deniers constantly use to hide their lack of any rational argument.

Mar 23, 2012
8:07 PM

"There are many credible sources of information … One place to start is at skepticalscience.com. "

Surely, Dr Suzuki, you must be joking. This web site states "It is widely believed that warmer climes will encourage migration of disease-bearing insects like mosquitoes and malaria is already appearing in places it hasn’t been seen before." As evidence, they quote a single study (Epstein et al, 1998) that states that "transmission [of P. falciparum] is generally limited by the 16°C winter isotherm". These two bold statements negate nearly 100 years of medical publications from cold Western countries.

If you are looking for reliable information about malaria, start with this 1999 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by two tropical disease physicians. They start with a scary historical portrait of malaria in Canada, with multiple references to Canadian medical publications, and finish with the recent resurgence of this disease. And no, it has nothing to do with climate change.

Even more reliable is the total debunking of the global-warming-will-increase-malaria claim by Dr Paul Reiter of the Institut Pasteur, published in 2008 in the Malaria Journal. There you will learn that "Official figures for 1923–25 listed 16.5 million cases [in USSR], of which not less than 600,000 were fatal [36]. Tens of thousands of infections, many caused by P. falciparum, occurred as far north as the Arctic seaport of Arkhangelsk (61° 30'N)."

Once you read all that, re-read skepticalscience.com on this subject and ask yourself which is the reliable source.

http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-positives-negatives-basic.htm http://www.decvar.org/documents/epstein.pdf http://www.ecmaj.ca/content/160/2/211.full.pdf http://www.malariajournal.com/content/7/S1/S3

Mar 22, 2012
10:23 AM

Ian Hanington provides a good illustration of exactly what I am talking about. I suggest that high school, college and university students taking philosophy see how many logical fallacies you can find in Hanington's post and Dr. Suzuki's article. Wiki has a good list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Listoffallacies . Here are ones to focus on understanding and applying:

ad hominem (attack the man, not the idea) red herrings guilt by association appeal to authority/fear/ridicule/motive straw man arguments (misrepresentation of an opponent's position) faulty generalizations.

I rest my case.

Sincerely,

Tom Harris Executive Director International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) http://www.climatescienceinternational.org

Mar 21, 2012
9:30 PM

There are honest skeptics out there. Those skeptics usually call into question such things as the feedbacks related to climate change, not to the causes of it. Those labelled 'deniers' are those people that question the cause of climate change as there is evidence out there pointing to the cause. The major band of absorption of CO2 dealing with the greenhouse effect is centered at 15 microns or 667cm^-1. Studies have shown this is the band associated with the majority of the warming (Griggs et al, 2006). While water vapour absorbs some of the lines within CO2s absorption range they are all increasing, specifically the shoulders of the CO2 band. Increases in CO2 are the cause of the current warming. The atmosphere is increasing at a current rate of 2ppm/year or 15.6 billion tons (Scripps Mauna Loa data) while humans emissions currently account for over 33.5 billion tons annually (CDIAC 2009/2010 estimates). From a quick look of Mr Tom Harris's site they are a group of Earth scientists, or geologists, that question climate science based on "Well it's changed before so therefor it must be natural." They are completely disregarding the evidence stated above. Different causes. If you want to talk about fallacious arguments there you go.

Mar 21, 2012
9:11 PM

This is exactly why I created my protest video: stop-motion animation body painting was my visual communication tool with regards to the oil industry. I am going to make more videos, I was actually just looking around your website for ideas about what my next video will be about… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cs1YEAMqK40

Mar 21, 2012
2:38 PM

Regarding the comments from Tom Harris:

First, the term "deniers" is correct and is not an attempt to equate climate change deniers with Holocaust deniers, except to the extent that both deny reality in the face of overwhelming evidence. One can't call them skeptics, because questioning and examining evidence is not the same as rejecting it no matter how much of it there is or how convincing it is.

Deniers are essentially claiming that the world's climate scientists and other experts, legitimate scientific academies and institutions, and most governments are wrong. The argument isn't rational.

As for Mr. Harris's denial that he is a PR man, he has been doing PR work for a number of climate change denial and industry support groups for many years. He was even a director of operations for lobby and PR firm the High Park Group, where he specialized in "strategic communication and media relations".

He is a regular speaker at the Heartland Institute, and now works with the International Climate Science Coalition, a group that promotes conspiracy theories around climate change and seeks to discredit the legitimate science.

We can only take Mr. Harris's word that "ICSC has never been funded by industry", as it does not reveal the sources of its funding. We do know, however, that despite once claiming that it "has been funded and supported exclusively by private individuals", it received $45,000 from the U.S.-based Heartland Institute in 2007.

Mr. Harris is fond of posting comments and writing letters to the editor to defend himself and promote his bogus "scientific" organization, which is his right and also a strategy that he has recommended in his role as a PR man.

We believe in honest and rational debate, but that debate has moved on to what we should be doing about human-caused pollution and climate change. Those who profit from continued and excessive use of fossil fuels, and those who speak for them, are only trying to stall action, much to the detriment of the people who share this planet and their children and grandchildren.

For more information, please see Sourcewatch.

Mar 20, 2012
11:10 PM

It is misleading to say, as David Suzuki does in his piece above: “the revelation that Ottawa’s Carleton University hired Tom Harris, a PR man for a number of “astroturf” groups with a mechanical engineering background, to teach a course on climate change.”

It is old news, not a “revelation”, that I taught a climate course at Carleton for the past three years. I was hired because of my teaching and science background as well as my decade of working with the course originator and primary author, Professor Tim Patterson, a leading academic and climate researcher at Carleton.

I am not a “PR man.” Like Suzuki, I engage in public education. I have solid training and experience in thermodynamics, heat transfer and fluid mechanics, all relevant to understanding the causes of climate change. How does David Suzuki’s biology background equip him to comment so loudly on the immensely complex atmospheric/oceanic climate system?

Calling me “a PR man”, and referring to those on our side of the debate as “deniers, as Suzuki does, are uncivilized ad hominem—against the man—attacks. The “deniers” label is usually an attempt to equate those who question political correctness on climate change to Holocaust deniers. Any of the 1,500 students who took my course at Carleton understand this to be a logical fallacy unworthy of serious debate. Regardless, we do not deny climate change—we simply question its causes.

The International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), the one (not “a number of”) group I have led since early 2008, is anything but an “astroturf” group. Contrary to the situation at the David Suzuki Foundation, ICSC has never been funded by industry.

As one of Canada’s leaders, Suzuki should be promoting an intellectual climate that encourages constructive debate. Attacks against groups and individuals are not helpful.

Sincerely,

Tom Harris Executive Director International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) http://www.climatescienceinternational.org

Mar 16, 2012
10:52 PM

I don't understand the arguments for and against possible global warming or cooling. The other planets of our solar system are currently warming…are we really going to hold this one back?

Furthermore, the same acts of burning that creates the ever-so-popular CO2 arguments, also creates particulates. According to the UN, WHO, and US EPA, particulates are the "health issue of the decade" and they kill about 4.5 million people a year.

So, during the last ten years of climate discussions, 45 million people have needlessly died due to this aspect of air pollution…about equal to all the deaths of WW2. And how many have died due to CO2-induced global warming? Hmmm, let met count on my fingers…

Wake up people, it's time to stop the burning!
Think "Disruptive Technology" because it is here.

Mar 13, 2012
12:36 PM

I hear what you're saying Daniel, a lot of precious time is being wasted trying to convince the world there is a problem when intuitively at least, we mostly all do know this yet resist change out of uncertainty how to proceed.

It is possible to live in ways that are sustainable and those of us who know the way must lead. We will have to demonstrate that we are further ahead by human measures for our efforts in order to be convincing though.

Mar 12, 2012
8:45 PM

As I recall, a recent poll was taken regarding what issues were important to Canadians, and only 6 percent of us place the environment at the top of our list. If there is any truth in the numbers, Canadians are falling asleep at the "spinning wheel" driven by greedy corporations and world leaders that propagate old ideas. This isn't rocket science— even a 5 year old can tell me if I put chemicals on my lawn or oil long enough we will get sick eventually.The post war generation of the 40's I speak to are not informed of what the truth is regarding the consequences of future generations from continued fossil fuel use while the younger generation are more environmentally aware, governments and big money are using this misinformed public to their advantage: no oil no big house or expensive car. If I were groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation or Nature Canada, or a political group that cares, mass public announcements via tv and internet space/time need to be produced to educate the public. Knowledge is power. When money dictates reason than knowledge is reduced to mediocrity at best.The question is are willing to live with that?

Mar 12, 2012
1:32 PM

Whatever color your political stripes are, wasting time denying peer reviewed science is getting you nowhere fast. There is a whole new world in the making. If you want to be a player you had better get on the bandwagon now!

Mar 12, 2012
10:50 AM

There are many people, conservationists and environmentalists, like myself, who do believe in global warming but do not agree at all with the discussion on climate change. And we are not deniers! Simply put, we think the focus is totally wrong. http://extremepolarislandsconservation.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/climate-change-a-pointless-debate/

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